LEADING ARTICLE : Getting divorced from Olga

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The Independent Online
The possession of a small majority in the House of Commons must be irksome in many ways for Her Majesty's ministers. But of all the myriad disadvantages it confers, that of having to take Lady Olga Maitland MP seriously must be the pits. Lady Olga believes in the family - but not as the rest of us do. She believes in it as Dame Barbara Cartland believes in love, as an immutable, unvarying, eternal institution whose benefits can never be doubted or questioned. And she isn't alone.

Pity then poor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Chancellor - and an upright man desiring to do his best for the law. His Divorce Bill, a centrepiece of the forthcoming Queen's speech, is an honest attempt to remove some of the more objectionable aspects of the current divorce laws, while hoping gently to persuade more couples to stick together. He plans to remove quickie divorces based on "fault" (cruelty, unreasonable behaviour, adultery) and replace them with automatic divorce - effective after a 12-month "cooling- off" period. Any problems with his proposals lie in a lack of clarity about the availability of legal aid to divorcing couples (necessary) and the strength of emphasis upon compulsory counselling (unworkable). To any reasonable person, however, Lord Mackay's proposals do not seem likely to affect the incidence of divorce (a product of social forces beyond the control of mere governments), but rather seek to manage better the business of divorce.

Unfortunately Lady Olga and her pals are not reasonable. To them Lord Mackay's Bill is an assault upon the sacred institution. They are sure, beyond the need for evidence, that it will encourage the divorce-prone and morally-deficient people of Britain to become serial spouse-dumpers. Lord Mackay is thus "demeaning" marriage. And her efforts have been supplemented by other would-be surprising moral majoritarians, like John Patten and John Redwood. Yesterday they were turning the screws on Lord Mackay.

So what? There will be a free vote. Opposition MPs are not likely to vote against the Bill, especially if the legal aid and counselling issues can be dealt with - so the Government can live with a chorus of groans from stage right, surely?

Well, no - not if yesterday's events are anything to go by. The temporary shelving by the Lord Chancellor of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill after representations (some of them incredibly ill-informed) by eight Maitlandites is an ill-omen. This Bill, which seeks to extend the ability to remove abusive men from the home, has been subject to the controversial "fast track" Commons procedure - the consequent haste may help explain why the backbencher's caricature of it as a co-habiters' charter was so woefully wide of the mark. Yet Lord Mackay was forced to agree to a postponement, to give him time to look at three amendments tabled by the backbenchers. The Bill may never return.

This is a classic case of the rump wagging the dog. And the Government may well feel obliged to accede to the same lobby as the Divorce Bill proceeds - perhaps giving way on issues such as lengthening the cooling- off period or retaining fault. But any Act coloured in this fashion would substitute nostalgia for wisdom, authoritarianism for enlightenment. Our tip to Lord Mackay is this: don't listen to Olga.